Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos

"Now the work of the astronomers begins."
Chris Young
Two images of Didymos and Dimorphos shortly after impact.
Two images of Didymos and Dimorphos shortly after impact.

Source: ASI / NASA 

It really happened.

NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft purposefully crashed into an asteroid yesterday, September 27, as part of a planetary defense test aimed at changing the space rock's trajectory.

Next, the astronomical community will observe the aftermath of the Armaggedon-like mission to ascertain whether it was a success.

Thanks to the Italian space agency, we already have some early close-up imagery of the asteroid just after the impact. It has released the first images from its tiny Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), which hitched a ride alongside DART and captured the stunning final moments.

Close-up images of the DART asteroid crash

The images we saw yesterday (shared below) of Dimorphos getting closer and closer — before impact was confirmed by a red screen — came straight from the DART spacecraft's Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) imager.

The LICIACube spacecraft hitched a ride aboard the DART spacecraft for most of the journey to Dimorphos but was deployed shortly before impact. It then started orbiting the Didymos asteroid system and was able to capture images shortly before and after the impact.

Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos
Dimorphos and Didymos as seen by LICIACube on Sept. 26, 2022.

Source: ASI / NASA 

It took approximately three hours for those images to be beamed back to Earth some 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from the asteroid system.

The LICIACube spacecraft's two cameras picked up images of bright debris surrounding Dimorphos following the collision.

As per Space.com, during a press conference held in Italian on Tuesday, Elisabetta Dotto, science team lead at Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), said: "We're really very proud." Dotto further explained that the LICIACube team would be releasing more images over the coming days.

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Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos
The asteroid system shortly after impact

Source: ASI / NASA 

"Dimorphos is completely covered really by this emission of dust and detritus produced by the impact," Dotto continued, adding that scientists weren't sure exactly how Dimorphos would react to the collision and what the aftermath of the impact would look like.

Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos
LICIACube captured bright light reflection off Dimorphos dust emissions.

Source: ASI / NASA 

NASA's DART mission was purposefully designed to smash into Dimorphos, which is a smaller asteroid circling a larger one called Didymos. Both together are referred to as the Didymos asteroid system.

Didymos poses no threat to Earth, but crashing a spacecraft into it will allow scientists to determine whether we could do the same in the event of a hypothetical hazardous asteroid headed towards Earth.

Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos
Astronomers will now also observe the asteroid system from Earth to measure its orbital period.

Source: ASI / NASA 

What now? Dimorphos is under observation from Earth

Over the next few days and weeks, scientists will determine whether the DART mission was able to successfully and substantially alter the speed and trajectory of Dimorphos.

As Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, points out, the main scientific work now will be conducted from Earth. "Now the work of the astronomers begins," he tweeted. "Every 11 hours, Dimorphos goes behind Didymos as seen from Earth. By measuring that time of disappearance, we can accurately measure the orbital period of Dimorphos and see if it has changed due to the impact."

Many ground-based observatories trained on the Didymos asteroid system have already shared images of the impact. Astronomers from the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) project, funded by NASA, have already compiled a timelapse (shown in the video above) that highlights the dust emissions from the impact as seen from Earth.

Many more images are sure to be released in the coming days as astronomers observe and measure Dimorphos' orbital period — the time it takes to orbit Didymos. Stay posted for more updates on NASA's DART mission and Italy's first deep-space mission, LICIACube.

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